The Hawks finally took a big step on Thursday night and looked like a team that was getting close to being ready for next week's season opener. With the full compliment of players at coach Larry Drew's disposal, the Hawks went out and defended the Phillips Arena home court with a 98-89 victory over LeBron and the Miami Heat. Joe Johnson led the way with 27 points while Mike Bibby and Marvin Williams helped put the game away in the final moments.
The results of this game doesn't quiet all of the concerns that have been raised this preseason, but it does give us a glimpse at a team that might just be getting a little more comfortable with coach Drew's offense. A recurring theme in this recap is going to be focus and aggressiveness because that was exactly the way the Hawks came out tonight which was a stark contrast to the way they came out against Orlando. Joe Johnson in particular looked to attack early and that set the tone offensively for the night.
The biggest thing I took from the game while observing the offense was how the Hawks ran the offense during crunch time. Excellent ball movement set up just about every shot down the stretch. A double team against Johnson led to a MIke Bibby three pointer. Bibby scored on another trip off of a nice little curl play and Joe Johnson found a wide open Marvin Williams on the wing for a dagger three pointer late in the game. The difference in this season and last was the players seemed to know where everyone was going to be. That is important because it builds trust in this new offensive system and that will be a huge key to the team's success this season.
Now there is still some kinks to work out in the offense. Early in the game the Hawks settled for a lot of perimeter jump shots and the pace really had to pick up before they were able to attack the rim with any regularity. Al Horford hasn't played great the last two games struggling with his perimeter shot a little. Horford started the game 1-8 from the field and many of those misses were off of pick and pop situations. Horford did rebound in the second half to finish with 12 points on 4-13 shooting and I am not really worried about him as his game will be there on most nights.
It appears that Josh Smith could still be feeling his way through the offense somewhat in the half court. Smith got in foul trouble early and only played 21 minutes in the game scoring 11 points on 5-10 shooting. He only grabbed two rebounds on the night and went 1-4 at the free throw line. Josh is still finding himself with the ball on the perimeter and instead of settling for jump shots he needs to put his head down and drive. Hopefully coach Drew addressed his lone ill advised three point attempt that was early in the shot clock with the Hawks leading by three. Still Smith looked pretty good in the post and did a nice job defensively on Chris Bosh which I will touch on a little later.
I am going to go out on a limb and say that the Hawks don't win this game without Mike Bibby tonight. Forget the clutch shots he made down the stretch, his biggest contribution were his five assists and getting the Hawks into their offense coming down the stretch. It clearly showed that he can still be a floor general and that is the part of the game that I hope he is trying to teach Jeff Teague. Coach Drew went with Bibby down the stretch at the expense of Jamal Crawford who finished with 11 points in just over 18 minutes of action. Miami really lacks that point guard that can attack Bibby and make him a liability on defense so the Hawks could really afford to keep him out there. I thought Teague played pretty well coming back from injury. He had a couple of drives and dishes that set up shots. He just needs time and his presence just makes the Hawks more flexible.
Defensively it seemed that the Hawks were focused and came out with a lot of energy. I thought Josh Smith set the tone early despite getting in foul trouble. As a team they seemed to contest everything at the basket, with nothing coming easy for Bosh or anyone not named LeBron James. Smith really bodied with Bosh in the post and didn't let him get comfortable. It isn't that I think that they did a bad job against James either, it is just that he is such a tough cover. When he is making his outside shot it nearly becomes impossible to a) prevent him from scoring or b) not end up putting him at the free throw line. James finished with 38 points shooting 11-22 from the field and 13-19 from the free throw line. However, the game deeply resembled the Cavs from last season as James dominated the ball, especially in the second half, while all of his teammates seemed to space the floor and watch. We will see how that changes once Dwayne Wade is back in the lineup.
When talking match ups the Hawks only have two players that are really capable of attempting to slow James down being Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams. Mo Evans got a chance during the first half but just doesn't have the size to deal with James.
The second unit I thought played pretty well individually but not so much together as a unit. If you look at the box score and the +/- stats you will see that the starters pretty much all finished with a plus rating and the reserves finished with negative marks. Keep in mind that coach Spoelstra didn't really sub out a complete unit as he usually kept Bosh or James on the floor the entire time. That may be an area where coach Drew has to get more creative with his substitution patterns to prevent having the entire second team on the floor at the same time. They played with high energy, the match ups just always weren't in their favor.
Before I wrap this up I want to take a little closer look at the guard rotation the Hawks currently have. Jordan Crawford received a DNP-CD last night and I have been saying all along that I am not sure where his minutes are going to come from barring an injury. The Hawks played last night a lot closer to a regular season game and it would be really nice for Joe to be able to check in at about 35-36 minutes every night. Bibby logged 28 minutes, Jeff Teague about 19 minutes, and Jamal Crawford just over 18 minutes. Clearly Bibby won't play 28 minutes every night but I expect Jamal to be on the court a lot more as well. Fact is that barring a trade or an injury, JC2 is going to be the odd man out a lot of nights.
Recaps, links and other goodies:
NBA Playbook examines the Flex Offense - The TNT broadcast kept referring to Drew's new system as a "Princeton" style of offense. Personally I think there are a lot more Flex principles in it than Princeton.